Beyond Disney World
Florida's swamp land is something to be truly admired and explored
By Meagan Luce
Forget Disney World and Universal Studios, forget the snowbirds and forget the timeshares and beaches packed with northerners trying to get a souvenir tan from their week in Florida. Remember, though, that ol' catch phrase "swampland in Florida", for Florida is full of it and no matter who tells you what, it's definitely worth its weight in gold.
Flying over Florida, you can't miss the 1.5 million acres of wetlands fondly known as the Everglades. And when you touch down in Miami, Fort Lauderdale or Fort Myers (the three closest airports to the Everglades), you should head away from the beach and towards a true Florida adventure.
Sunburned, relaxed and renewed, we headed away from the hustle and bustle of Miami in an inexpensive rental car and across the stretch of the I-75 called Alligator Alley, which brings you right into the heart of the Everglades. A wide flat expanse of land stretched out on all sides of us as we enjoyed the warm breeze flowing through the car windows. Every so often a telephone would pop up on the side of the road in case of a break-down. Given its namesake, you might want to be well prepared heading out onto this expanse of highway by filling up on gas and tuning up so there won't be any emergencies. But should you need to stop, you can take comfort in the chicken-wire fence that separates all those alligators out there from you – though I wouldn't, say, picnic at the side of the road or anything.
About halfway across this 78-mile long thoroughfare, we turn up the twisted, narrow road that leads up to Billie's Swamp Safari. Driving slowly and without fences to block the views, now and again we catch a glimpse of an alligator head in the ditch. We stop in at a gas station only to find more alligators, these ones safely dispatched to a mucky pool behind a seemingly solid fence. "No molesting the alligators," suggests a sign posted nearby. This conjures up an interesting image of a poor alligator being petted by hundreds of curious humans – as if!
Back in the car and up the road 30 minutes, we finally turn into Billie's Swamp Safari – and our Everglade adventure begins. Billie's is owned by the Seminole Indians, a tribe of Native Americans who, some say, have lived in this area for 12,000 years. They're Everglade experts, I suppose you might say, and they've capitalized on that with their very own tour operation.
Inside a wooden building complete with souvenirs and Seminole Cultural information, we book ourselves in for a one-hour swamp safari, an airboat tour and a wildlife show – all part of a day-long package. But before embarking on our journey, we take to the Swamp Water Café for a little lunch. Mmm… frog legs, gator nuggets, catfish and fry bread with honey – maybe not. We're having enough of an adventure, so ham sandwiches and chips it is.
Back out in the wilds, we're loaded onto what looks like a convertible tank with giant fat wheels replacing the tracks. A giant man decked out in load clothing hops on board and introduces himself. "I'm Gus," he says, making a wisecrack about how his name is Seminole for Man-With-Loud-Shirt or something like that. His enthusiasm is catching as he talks about the wildlife ‘out there' and shows us the massive alligator tooth he sports on a chain around his neck.
We move through the wetlands – which are actually fairly dry as we're here at the tail end of the dry season (December to April) – spotting water buffalo, bison, wild hogs and several species of birds. Weaving through a forest, we pull up next to a small thatched hut and Gus explains how the Seminole used to live and survive in the Everglades. Moving on, he makes jokes about leaving us alone to survive the wilderness alone, before pulling up to a huge grassy opening. Gus shows us out to a platform surrounding a huge alligator pit and disappears. He reappears on the wrong side of the fence, wearing hip waders and an intense expression. The crowd collectively sucks in its breath as he slinks closer and closer to the biggest alligator I've ever seen. Gus demonstrates how to avoid being eaten by an alligator while at the same giving us the history on this great creature. He's huge, but they only grow this big in captivity, he assures us – especially those of us who foolishly had once entertained the notion of camping in Florida. The trick to staying alive is to move slowly and keep directly in front of the alligator, he tells us – because an alligator can't actually see directly in front of his nose. Gus pets the giant creature and avoids the odd snap as the beast adjusts his position so he can see what's touching his nose.
Back at the camp, nothing seems as exciting as Gus and his alligators. Even the man wielding dangerous snakes in the Herpetarium just doesn't cut it, though it is interesting if you like slithery creatures and all.
Our next adventure arrives in due time, though, as we step onto an airboat – these are the boats of movie chases, the ones with the giant fans on the back that skim across the water like a delicate breeze. But however floaty one feels while riding in these, the incredible noise of the giant engine takes away from the lightness-of-being. We're handed earplugs before we zoom off, spinning and navigating tight turns in this incredibly fast machine. These airboats make it possible to go deep into the mangroves of the Everglades or navigate the swampy prairies. We do both on our 20 minute tour, the driver skimming across the grassy canals and deep into a mangrove where he cuts the engine (thank God!) and gives us a well-rehearsed speech on the wildlife.
Before we know it, our adventure in the Everglades is over and we must make the trek back across Alligator Alley to Miami. With more time, we could have stayed the night in a typical Seminole hut or in the Big Cypress Campground and RV park. We could have gone fishing or walked through Everglade National Park on a ranger-led tour or even canoed the mangroves. But we're part of the week-long vacationer set and we must fly home soon. It's not so bad, though, as Miami, too, has a lot to offer with its expansive beaches, art-deco area and beach-side bars. We smile as we clink glasses of Margaritas – here's to adventure in Florida!
You can tour the Everglade National Park by personal vehicle, For more information in planning your own Everglade adventure, try these places:
- Billie Swamp Safari is located 19 miles off the I-75 driving west from Miami.
tel: 1-800-949-6101 or (863) 983-6101
- Flamingo Lodge Boat Tours
tel: (239) 695-3101
- Everglade National Park Boat Tours
tel: (239) 695-2591
- Everglade National Park (A World Heritage Site, an International Biosphere Reserve and a Wetland of International Importance)
tel: (305) 242-7700